Escape to Another Place
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes," says Proust.
Though you may not be able to travel, here are some brilliant pairs of eyes.
If you don't already want to quit your job, move out west, and post up in a lookout tower high above the forest to contemplate solitude and the wilderness (our place in it, the hubris and idiocy with which we change it), this book will make you want to do that. Be careful.
If you are like me and enjoy reading digressive, Sebaldian collage-books at the seaside, then this one is for you. All the ocean is in these pages.
Zora Neale Hurston travels around the Caribbean in the 1930s, and gets way into voodoo. Part diary, part ethnography, part political commentary, this book is amazing.
An archly facetious would-be tourist's guide to Antigua, channeling Fanon with a breathtaking precision of image and argument. Kincaid explains tourism as a neo-colonial form of occupation from without, and offers no expiation whatsoever for the guilty conscience of the thrill-seeker, whom she excoriates in the second-person: "the banality of your own life is very real to you; it drove you to this extreme, spending your days and nights in the company of people who despise you, people you do not like really, people you would not want to have as your actual neighbour." Uncomfortable and unforgettable; the opposite of beach reading.
Krakauer is one of the best adventure/travel writers out there, and those who want to live vicariously through him need to read this book. He details his harrowing climb to the summit of Mount Everest, a trip that becomes deadly for many of his companions. I was so captivated by this story that I (very) momentarily considered climbing Everest...I got over that fleeting desire but still love the book.
Though ostensibly a walking tour of the the grim, gray coastline of eastern England, this book is in fact a natural history of humanity, of the catalogue of catastrophes we call civilization. Recovering from an injury and recounting his long pilgrimage, the narrator leads us through a landscape and a mesh of meditations: from the ghost towns of industrial decline to the windblown heaths of ecological collapse, from the skull of Sir Thomas Browne to the lurid royal origins of the silkworm trade in China. Erudite and curious, mysterious and melancholy, and punctuated obliquely by an archive of grainy photographs, it is a testament, an atonement, and a reverie on the endgame of history. It is also as delicate as gossamer, and in its most profound moments it touches the sublime.
Rebecca Solnit will force you to reconsider what an essay can do. Her writing in this collection is frighteningly clever and moves from Hitchcock to women's underwear to snakes to Yves Klein Blue with effortless ease, mirroring the circuitous, tangential way we speak and think (or at least the way I speak and think) in a way which is deeply comforting. This is the book I have given as a gift most often, and which I return to whenever I feel like the world and I aren't on speaking terms.